Cartagena de Indias – The Walled City
The Old Town of Cartagena de Indias is a maze of beautifully restored colonial houses, churches, plazas or convents, most of which have been recently turned into boutique or luxury hotels. A characteristic of these colonial houses is an overhanging wooden balcony covered by a tiled roof and one or more shady patios inside.
In the late 16th Century, the 13 kilometer long massive walls, “Las Murallas”, were built to protect the city from pirates, who repeatedly attacked Cartagena. Francis Drake was probably the best known and most successful one… Even more impressive is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, an entire hill turned into a fortress: it is actually the largest fortress built by the Spaniards in their colonies…
Why all that fuss? Cartagena was one of the most important ports in colonial times, from where the gold robbed in the New World was shipped to Spain!
Cartagena – Always Popular?
Even in the darkest periods of “La Violencia”, Cartagena remained a major tourist destination: domestic tourists as well as international travel groups, especially cruises ship, continued visiting. And in the last 10 years, numbers have risen dramatically, making of Cartagena the second most visited town in Colombia, after Bogota and ahead of also extremely popular Medellin.
However, with a rather compact Old Town, it is definitely the place where tourism, Colombian & foreign alike, is the most obvious and the most ubiquitous! It seems that in some streets, every single house has been turned into a hotel, a restaurant, a tourist shop or a bar…
Nonetheless, no visit to Colombia would be complete without a few days in Cartagena, one of the most beautiful Colonial Cities of the Americas!
Cartagena’s Many Highlights
- Stroll the Old City – The best way to soak in the sheer beauty of this Colonial City is to leisurely and slowly (it is very hot and humid in summer!) stroll the streets of the old city… Evenings are the best time to explore, when temperatures become pleasant and buildings are illuminated.
- Discover the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – This huge fortress is an impressive sight, and the outstanding Audio Guide will give you a full comprehension of the strategic role this place played in the history of Cartagena. Plan enough time: if you want to do the complete visit you will need and excruciating 3 hours, partly in a scorching sun!
- Visit the “Palacio de la Inquicision”, which tells the history of the Inquisition in this part of the world. The gory instruments of torture are its most impressive exhibits, although many displayed where never used in Latino America, like the guillotine.
- Climb the Convento de la Popa – The historic center is only an itsy bitsy tiny part of this city with one million inhabitants. The top of this 180 meter high hill provides the best view of the layout of this city, and only then one comprehends!
- Do Not Overlook Getsemani – Despite its many decaying buildings, it has lots of charm. The huge windows have no glass but wooden shatters. Outside are bars constructed of small turned wooden columns that allow the air to circulate but block entrance to the living room, which is on full display for anybody passing by on the street.
- Spend One Day at the Beach in Bocagrande – This is where well-heeled Columbians check in high rising hotels or apartments for rent. This skyline plus an abundant number of trendy restaurants, designer shops and its long beach give it a certain Miami feeling. And the beach in superb and not overly crowded!
- Take One of these Tours to the Islas del Rosario – No need to pre-book one of those tours, just head to the “Muelle Turistico” at around 08:30 am, and head for Gate Nr. 3. Ignore the many touts and buy from the official desks, it will be much, much cheaper! Then be patient, because departure at 09:00 am sharp is… Well, not necessarily that sharp! This is a very Colombian experience, as you most probably will be the only foreigner on these crowded boats, but the snorkeling (not included) is superb (the best snorkeling I experienced, better than many scuba diving experiences), and the Playa Blanca is a really nice beach (just walk a few hundred meters and it will be much more quiet).
- Watch the Sunset at the Café del Mar – Be there early enough as this is a very popular spot! But this airy bar is a great place to chill at sunset in the evening breeze with a cold beer (the most expensive I had in Colombia… at 3.5 €) or a very strong cocktail.
- Enjoy Some Gourmet Dining – Colombia didn’t strike me as THE place for gourmets, but you have some really nice restaurants in the Old City & in Getsemani, catering for all budgets. We couldn’t get a table at “La Cevicheria”, even though we tried 3 times… The “Gastrolab Sur” offers nice fish dishes at a very reasonable price in a relaxed atmosphere, and the more upscale “La Gaucha” had some stunning meat…
- Dance The Night Away at the Café Havana or the Bazurto Social Club – Yes, it is expensive, yes, cocktails are average, and yes, live music (Cuban & Colombian Salsa) is absolutely excellent!
- Watch Pelicans – Fishermen come back mid morning and sell at the feet of the city Walls their catch of the day. Pelicans gather then for the leftovers… An opportunity to make some really good shots of those beautiful birds!